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A few dozen firefighters from across the county lean on a truck at Station 58 in West Miami-Dade. It's around 9:30 p.m., and they're puffing cigars, munching on cake, and telling stories. At the center stands Alvio Dominguez, a 40-year-old veteran celebrating his last shift before shipping off with the Army National Guard for a second tour in Iraq.
Suddenly, the station chief's booming voice cuts through the chatter: "Everyone, back to your home stations!"
Baffled firefighters drop their cake, grab their gear, and file out. Then the chief gruffly pulls Dominguez to a backroom and orders him to hand over his badge, ID, and uniform shirt: He's under arrest.
That March 28, 2007 gut-punch began more than three years of legal hell. Dominguez, winner of a Florida Distinguished Service Medal and Combat Infantry Badge, was eventually convicted of 16 felonies for a heinous crime: overbilling for college tuition payments.
An appeals hearing is scheduled next month. The case provides a stark and telling contrast to revelations of malfeasance by another local military vet: Miami-Dade Commissioner Jose "Pepe" Diaz. He wrangled hundreds of thousands in contracts at Miami International Airport for a construction company where he earns a $120,000 annual salary for, well, being a commissioner. No criminal charges have been filed against Diaz.
While the commish takes home $55,000 in taxpayer benefits along with the six-figure salary, Dominguez's life has fallen to pieces. His wife left with their daughter after the arrest. He lost his job in 2008. He had to retire from the military last year. And not long after the night in jail, his house went into foreclosure. It's a Dade tradition: The minnows get nuked while the whales swim free.
"I got railroaded," says Dominguez, a 42-year-old ringer for Heat-era Robert De Niro with a graying goatee, slick hair, and an incendiary stare. "I'm just trying to get my life back."
Dominguez was born in Cuba in 1968 and moved with his parents to Spain in 1972. They relocated to New York two years later and then settled in Miami Beach. Dominguez grew up Catholic, graduating from St. Patrick Elementary and Archbishop Curley High. His dad, also named Alvio, supported the family as a registered nurse at Mount Sinai Medical Center.
Before his senior year of high school, Dominguez enlisted in the Army Reserve. "I wanted to fight for this country that had adopted me," he says.
He soon enlisted in the National Guard and served a hitch in the Middle East during Operation Desert Storm. Back in Miami in 1995, he applied to become a firefighter and, as a veteran, moved to the front of the class.
He loved the work. "Being a soldier prepared me for the stress, and being a firefighter helped me brace for the gruesome parts of going back to war," he says.
And Dominguez never shied away from a fight.
"If I had to describe Alvio in two words, it would be cocky and confident," says Capt. Antonio Barroso, who served with Dominguez in the Guard from 1999 until he retired. "He talks a lot of shit, but he's a great leader who'd do anything for his soldiers."
Dominguez first clashed with county administrators in 1999, when he left for military officer classes. His bosses said he failed to give enough notice, and ordered him to enter counseling. (Dominguez still disputes he didn't tell them he was leaving.)
It was the first of dozens of skirmishes during his military service. Dominguez is the kind of guy who gets under his bosses' skin, especially when he thinks he's right. His first tour in Iraq — as a first lieutenant in charge of a 38-man infantry platoon — was cut short after six months because he clashed with superiors. He later transferred to a new unit in Homestead where he was promoted to captain.
And he picked a fight with his fire department bosses over a ten-year anniversary raise that nearly everyone receives. Administrators tried to deny him of it because he had missed work for Army officer training. Then, in 2004, he started online business studies through St. Leo University near Tampa for little more than $1,000 a class.
He applied for county reimbursement, as well as money from the GI Bill. Both were provided. He never tried to hide the double-billing; he keeps evidence of a November 2004 email argument with a secretary on the issue. A few months later, Dominguez protested to the firefighters union that "this seems to be discrimination against those who have been granted benefits for service in the military."
His timing was bad. In November 2006, the county's Office of the Inspector General wrapped up a sweeping investigation. It found nearly $200,000 in tuition program fraud owing to a raft of double-dipping, such as failing to report scholarships and discounts.
The vast majority of offenders were ordered to repay the extra fees. That list includes nine other firefighters (mostly captains or higher) who pocketed a total of $7,258.50. None was criminally charged.
But five months later, Dominguez was arrested at his going-away party. He was held overnight in county lockup and slapped with eight felonies (which were soon doubled to 16). His face was plastered on the TV news and in the Miami Herald. He was accused of pocketing $7,235. (In fact, Dominguez's documents show the difference was closer to $3,000.)
Why was Dominguez blasted when so many others went free? He has a theory:
"I wouldn't keep my voice down," he says. In fact, Dominguez, who earned $85,000 as a firefighter, filed a lawsuit against the county years before his arrest alleging he was treated unfairly as a veteran.
Either way, he went to trial in July 2008. A jury found him guilty on all 16 counts after he unconvincingly argued that his GI Bill money was a "benefit" that shouldn't count against county reimbursement. Circuit Court Judge Dennis Murphy — perhaps recognizing unequal treatment — withheld adjudication and sentenced him to two years of probation and anger management counseling.
That's not to say he's not suffering. His $143,000 condo in Sweetwater went into foreclosure soon after his arrest. His wife, Chelcea, left around the same time with their 8-year-old daughter, Sophia.
Marine veteran and eight-year commissioner Diaz, by contrast, is the kind of guy whom bosses love. He has also made a career out of being more slippery than a Crisco-greased hog. In 1993, as a young member of the Sweetwater City Council, he was accused of rigging a zoning vote in exchange for campaign cash. (The state ethics panel dropped the complaint.)
Then, in 2004, Diaz flew on developer Sergio Pino's private jet for a cushy fishing trip to Cancun — just months before Diaz helped engineer a key zoning deal for a Pino-owned plot of land in Doral. (That deal triggered a federal investigation, but no charges were filed.)
Two years later, the Herald revealed he earned $80,000 a year working for a Doral pharmaceutical baron. Even his supposed boss, Carlos De Céspedes, couldn't explain exactly what Diaz did to earn it. (De Céspedes is now serving time for tax fraud, but Diaz emerged unscathed.)
Recently, the Herald nailed Diaz again, revealing that since the commissioner joined U.S. Construction as a director in 2008, the firm has come out of nowhere to dominate contracts at Miami International Airport. As chairman of a committee that oversees MIA, Diaz never directly voted to give the firm business — but the Herald found that at least three times he voted to pay a firm that, in turn, hired his company.
"If it's not illegal," says Vanessa Brito, founder of Miami Voice, a group spearheading a drive to recall five commissioners, "it's definitely unethical."
If there are any plans to investigate Diaz, county officials aren't saying. The commissioner will probably keep on making six figures and winning re-election indefinitely. His office didn't return several calls seeking comment.
Dominguez, meanwhile, is working a handful of odd jobs — consulting for cigar shops, helping an electronics firm — and trying to keep his condo, though he hasn't made a payment since his arrest. A Florida appeals court has agreed to hear in January his case arguing he should be reinstated at the fire department. He still dreams of suiting up again.
As he sits in a Cuban café just off South Dixie Highway in South Miami, his eyes well with tears when he talks about the past three years. "My daughter was born two weeks before I left for Iraq, and when I think about everything she's been through, it's really hard," he says. "I stay strong because I know there are a lot of people watching my case and pulling for me to win."